Somewhere amid the Big Bad Wolf propaganda, the story of Mowgli gets lost. Remember Mowgli, the man-cub raised by wolves? That tendency of wolves to take in something not quite their own was what the US Fish and Wildlife Service hoped to utilize this summer when it applied to New Mexico’s Department of Game and Fish for a permit to release two adult wolves and up to 10 pups to “cross-foster” into existing wild wolf dens. The practice places captive-bred pups with wild parents who have pups within a week of the same age.
"The ultimate goal of that is for us to get new genetic material out into the field population, and also have a proven wild female or wild pack be able to raise those pups," says Jeff Humphrey, public affairs specialist with the Fish and Wildlife Service's Arizona office. "So you've got a female or a pack that has a good track record of preying on elk not cattle, and we can insert those pups so that they could become properly behaved wild pups and contribute their genetics a year, two years down the road to the larger wild population."
Imagine, as many as 10 wolf puppies tumbling around the Gila, learning to cull sick elk from herds, keep ungulates moving so they don't overgraze stream banks and compromise habitat for fish and aquatic life and generally make for a healthier ecosystem.
But New Mexico's Department of Game and Fish said no.
"We don't know what the end game is for the Mexican wolf population, and so at this point, the department is not in support of the Mexican Wolf Program," New Mexico Game and Fish Director Alexa Sandoval said during the May 7 meeting of the state Game Commission.
Since the Game Commission guides the policies of Game and Fish, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has asked the commission to reconsider the director's ruling during its Sept. 29 meeting in Albuquerque. It's a bit of a moot point, pup season having come and gone, but the agency's hope is that getting this year's applications approved will pave the way for next year.
This rarest subspecies of wolf has taken almost a decade longer than anticipated to limp toward the population goal of 100, set before their initial release into the wild in 1998. New Mexico fought the release then, and reintroduced wolves were set loose only in Arizona. They have since spread as far into the state as just south of I-40, west of Albuquerque, roaming 4.4 million acres over New Mexico's Gila National Forest and Arizona's Apache National Forest.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service recently set a new population goal of up to 325, a number still not considered "recovered" on a level that would see the Mexican wolf delisted, but a healthy step in that direction from a goal that sat at 100 for more than 30 years. The agency is revisiting the entire plan for Mexican wolf management and expects to have that finalized by the end of 2017. Its concern now has less to do with the headcount in the wild and more to do with the fact that almost all of the wolves in the wild are about as genetically similar as siblings.
"We have the need for increased releases of wolves so that we can sort of dilute the relatedness of the population," says Maggie Dwire, assistant Mexican wolf recovery coordinator for the Fish and Wildlife Service, "so that when animals disperse, they have a chance of meeting an animal that's not related to them so then gene diversity can increase and inbreeding can go down."
"The time to infuse that new genetic diversity is now—that's the sense of urgency we have in working with New Mexico for permitting and bringing wolves to the population," Humphrey says.
The Turner Endangered Species Fund also approached the Game Commission this year for a renewed permit to hold Mexican wolves in captivity at Ladder Ranch, and their application was also denied. That ranch is adjacent to the Mexican wolf recovery area and would have eased cross-fostering. Pups would essentially be moved next door, instead of across state lines.
This summer, two operations to cross-foster in Arizona fizzled out, one when the adult wolves expected to have pups failed to produce any and the other when the female wolf relocated her den before the new pups could arrive from Missouri and managers couldn't find it in time.
"The clock is the Mexican wolf's enemy, and every generation that passes, it's a little less genetically robust than it was before the clock started," Mike Phillips, executive director of the Turner fund, told commissioners in May.
A few months later, Joy Nicholopoulos, the deputy regional director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service's Southwest Office, told the commissioners that delaying the releases now means more wolves will need to be released later.
The window for cross-fostering this year has passed, but the USFWS would like to make sure next spring's pups see a more welcome reception. The pendulum doesn't seem to be swinging that direction, though.
During the June Game Commission hearing, public comment pointed to an anti-carnivore ethos taking over the commissioners, who were then discussing increasing quotas for bear hunts and allowing ranchers and hunters to trap cougars, both of which they approved. During the public comment, one person quoted Round River, the book by legendary conservationist, hunter and founder of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, Aldo Leopold: "'Harmony with land is like harmony with a friend. You cannot cherish his right hand and chop off his left. That is to say, you cannot love game and hate predators.' This push to kill ever more cougars and bears along with the Ladder Ranch wolf decision comes very close to looking like predator hatred."
An earlier version of this story quoted a public comment that attributed the Aldo Leopold quote to the book Wildlife Management. It is from the essay "Conservation" in Round River: From the Journals of Aldo Leopold.